As a small-market team with limited firepower, the Cleveland Indians need to optimize their run-scoring capabilities. Whether they’re doing that is hard to quantify: Cleveland ranks in the middle of the pack among American League teams in most offensive categories. One thing is certain, though—the Indians take an analytical approach to lineup construction and in-game strategy.
Manager Manny Acta and assistant general manager Mike Chernoff discussed the subject, in separate conversations, when the Indians visited Fenway Park last weekend.
Chernoff: “It’s Manny’s job to make out the lineup. It’s entirely up to him, but he does seek input from us. He reaches out to our analytics department to ask questions about the best lineup construction in certain situations, or maybe to see how a change he’s thinking about might help our team. He’s very open-minded about seeking feedback.”
Acta: “The main thing is scoring runs, so you need to stack up your best hitters up front. You forget about trying to put a guy in the second spot just because he can hit-and-run and bunt. After the first six hitters, you should put your best hitters in front of the [lesser] hitters. The bottom of your order should be the bottom. I’ve never been a big believer in the idea of having a second leadoff hitter. I don’t like putting a guy in the nine-hole who should be hitting in the seven- or eight-hole. To me, you have to maximize at bats. Your better hitters should have a shot at getting that extra at bat.”
The top of the order
Chernoff: “We’re clearly focused on getting guys on base in front of our power hitters. But a lot of that is going to depend on lefty-righty splits and who else is in the lineup. Michael Brantley had been leading off, but when we brought in Johnny Damon, Manny thought that having [Damon] there was a way to have him transition back to the big leagues. He could see a few more pitches and take the approach of just trying to get on base, and not necessarily hit for as much power. Johnny has a lot of experience in that spot, so he’s a natural fit in the leadoff position for us.
Acta: “Speed at the top is important, but it doesn’t do you any good if you can’t get on base. It’s been proven over the years. Guys like Wade Boggs had no speed, but if you have a high on-base guy, you have a better chance of scoring runs than if you have a guy leading off who can’t steal first base. The guy who hits first obviously has to be an on-base-percentage guy. Then you go from there.”
The middle of the lineup
Acta: “Like I said, I’m not a big believer in the second hitter being a guy who can just put the bat on the ball. I think that spot is one of the most important parts of your lineup. Then I believe that the third hitter should be your best hitter in your lineup. Period. I’ve never been a big advocate of having your best hitter hit cleanup. I think he should hit in the first inning and not sometimes lead off the next inning with nobody on.
“Your cleanup hitter has to hit for extra bases. That’s a big part of his job. I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb to tell you that I don’t want to put a singles hitter there just because he can drive in some runs with ground balls. He has to carry some fear with him when he comes to the plate, so that my best hitter sees some pitches.”
Chernoff: “We’re looking to score runs, and you try to find the best players that you can. The way it has played out is that we have a lot of left-handed hitters. Two of those guys are switch-hitters, which helps. I think that our entire bench right now is right-handed hitters, and that allows Manny to platoon when he needs to. Frankly, most starters in baseball are right-handed, so if you’re going to be one-side dominant, you’re better off being left-handed dominant.
“Manny has done an exceptional job of looking at match-ups and playing those percentages. Last year he had the greatest percentage of platoon advantages — for our offense — of any team in baseball. That just goes to show you that when there was a righty out there, he was going to a lefty. If there was a lefty on the mound, he was going to a righty. It wasn’t an absolute, though. He knew the platoon splits.”
The sacrifice bunt
Chernoff: “Manny has done a really good job of managing those situations. There are times when it is clearly the right decision to bunt and there are times when it seems like it’s definitely not the right decision to bunt. A lot depends on the speed of the batter, how good the defense is, and whether they’re expecting it or not. Just looking at run-expectancy tables doesn’t paint the entire picture for you. You have to be thinking through what has happened in the game — and what the situation is — in order to make those decisions. Manny does a great job of reading that, in-game.”
Acta: “I’m not big on bunting guys from first to second. I don’t think it’s a secret, because the facts are out there. It’s been proven that a guy has a better chance of scoring from first with no outs than from second with one out. I have to have way too much of an advantage late in the game, bullpen-wise and great hitters lined up, to do that. At first and second with no outs, I usually only do it with the bottom of the order, or maybe the top guy in the order, depending on how he’s swinging the bat. It guarantees me a runner on third with less than two out and another runner in scoring position. But I probably won’t if we need multiple runs. If it’s the heart of my order, it won’t happen.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.